What follows is a short story titled “Flotsam” written by Amanda Downum, and published by www.strangehorizons.com way back in 2006. Every time I read this story, it has inspired me and shown me a different shade of people and their relationships. I guess with time, perspective changes more than the person.
Three long days in Connemara, and on that third summer-short night Rebecca Killian admits a truth to herself.
She’s come home to die.
If anyone asked where her home was, she’d say New York, of course New York, her loft and the gallery. Or maybe the apartment in Berlin where she goes to rest and refuel every so often. She floats—floated—all over, but those are places she always drifts back to.
The way she’s drifted back to Ireland now.
That night, whiskey still warm in her blood, she opens the window in her rented cottage to let in the smell of summer and the sea. It washes over her, fills her lungs, and she cries.
The first tears since the diagnosis, leaking hot and silent down her cheeks, cool by the time they drip off her chin. And when the last drop is shed, she closes the window, wipes the salt and snot off her face, and goes to sleep.
The dying is a secret. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, she’s here on vacation: a change of scenery to get her out of a funk.
So Rebecca staggers out of bed at a reasonable hour, stumbles to the bathroom and runs the water to cover the sound of her vomiting. Like morning sickness, and she laughs between bouts of retching. She never thought her womb would grow anything, but it turns out to be fecund after all. The cancer won’t stop growing now, never mind that uterus and ovaries are gone, lost to the second round of surgery.
Maybe she should name it, this twisting tumor child.
She spits, flushes, and stands to brush her teeth. A stranger’s face watches her as she scrubs away the taste of whiskey and bile, all bone-sharp angles and silver-streaked black hair. The chemo claimed her long auburn curls, and the cancer’s melted away whatever softness she ever had.
You look good, Kat would assure her whenever Rebecca stopped to stare at herself in mirrors.Just different. Striking.
She should call Kat, before her agent starts to worry—worry more. She should call a lot of people, keep up the ruse, sneak in a few goodbyes while she can. She makes a list while she showers, names and faces hanging in her mind as she closes her eyes against soap and stinging spray. It’s longer than she’d have thought; maybe she’ll start tomorrow.
Siobhan’s making breakfast, or at least coffee, still in boxers and tank-top, hair sleep-tousled. Something so familiar about the sight, though Rebecca’s only known the girl a week, and her stomach takes a little sideways step.
She’s not here to have a last fling, she reminds herself as she takes the proffered cup, even if the girl is pretty. Very pretty, a sylph-punk girl, all supple tree-limb grace beneath the big boots and chrome and purple-tipped hair. She’s too young, anyway. Though that never stopped Rebecca before.
The summer apprenticeship was something Kat talked her into a year ago, just before they found the first tumor. She could have cancelled, but now she’s glad she didn’t, glad to have some company this last summer.
Siobhan leans against the counter, pouring milk into her mug. She looks far too fresh and cheerful for someone who drank just as much as Rebecca did the night before. “Henry said he saw a girl in the bog. A faerie girl.”
“Oh?” A quick glance for permission and she reaches across the table for Siobhan’s cigarettes. She quit five years ago, for all the good that did her; might as well enjoy them now.
“Red hair and white skin, like a fae thing, dressed in white.” She grins. “And she just disappeared, like mist.”
Smoke trails out of Rebecca’s nostrils and she arches an eyebrow. “When was this?” She takes a sip of steaming black coffee.
“Last night, he says. He brought the groceries by just now, when you were in the shower.” Siobhan’s shirt catches on her nipple rings as she sits, and Rebecca tries not to notice.
“We should find her,” Siobhan says, still smiling. “Maybe she’ll pose for us.”
“Maybe.” Rebecca smiles back, but her stomach’s sour again. Hundreds of red-haired girls in Ireland, no doubt, hundreds of children who think they see faeries. She drags deep on the cigarette, trying to settle her stomach. No reason to think it’s her girl, her faerie.
No reason to think Aoife waited for her.
Siobhan vanishes into her bedroom-cum-studio that afternoon, and Rebecca does the same. Canvases stacked in the corner, a block of wood, a bagged slab of clay—she stares at all of them for several moments before pulling out the little velvet pouch tucked into the bottom of her suitcase.
She sits on the bed, holding the bag in one hand, caressing the nap of the cloth with her thumb. Stones click and clatter inside. Finally she unties the drawstring and pours them onto the rumpled bedspread.
Beads tumble free in a glittering stream, glass and green gems. Jade and jasper, striped malachite and shimmer-soft labradorite fire. Set in gold wire links now, but not yet connected. She collected them all over the world, one by one, every time something reminded her of the brilliant changeable green of Aoife’s eyes.
She’s never sold one of her necklaces, only given them as gifts. This is the first she ever started, maybe the last she’ll ever finish.
Rebecca finds her pliers and shears. Her hands are still her own, at least, unchanged by disease—lean and callused, long-fingered and short-nailed. Muscles and tendons ripple as she twists the links together, motions so familiar she hardly has to think of them.
She’s always been proud of her hands; they’ve never betrayed her.
That evening Rebecca and Siobhan walk along the beach, as the sun bleeds into the sea and the moon rises over the rounded peaks of the Twelve Bens. Insects chirp and buzz in the salt-damp shadows, and Siobhan unlaces her stompy boots to wade in the shallows; Rebecca smiles to herself, and for the first time in months it’s not even bittersweet.
“Swim with me,” Siobhan calls, silhouetted against the violet and vermilion sky.
Rebecca turns her head, hopes the girl can’t see her smile crumble and fall away. “I don’t swim.” Her toes clench in dry white sand—not even powdered quartz, but shells ground fine and white by the waves. Like she’s not standing on land at all, and she fights the urge to step backwards.
Siobhan makes a disappointed noise and splashes farther out, but soon she trudges back, jeans wet to the thighs, and walks beside Rebecca the rest of the way.
They walk in comfortable silence till the last glimmer of twilight is gone, and the stars burn white against the forever-stretch of black and indigo sky. By the light of the sickle moon she makes out a dark shape against the shore ahead, the shape of a house. No light, no sound, just a blacker shadow in the gloom.
She pauses, hands clenching in her pockets. Whether she’s afraid of what was or what might be, she can’t say, but she can’t face that house tonight.
“Let’s go back,” she says, voice as light as she can make it. “I’m too old to be hiking around in the dark.”
Siobhan snorts, and her eyes and piercings gleam silver. The skeptical noise would be flattering, if Rebecca’s stomach weren’t so cold. They turn back toward the cottage.
The next day Siobhan locks herself away with a painting again. The girl is good—a pity there’s not more time to tutor her.
Rebecca fusses with sketches for a while, but eventually the sunlight on the water and wind in the grass call her out of the cottage. The necklace gleams on the nightstand, and she slips it into her pocket. She runs the stones through her fingers like prayer beads as she walks the two miles to Roundstone.
She worries for a moment that someone might recognize her, but that’s foolish. More than twenty years since she’s been here, and she barely recognizes herself these days.
She wanders in and out of shops, picking up shiny trinkets and putting them down again before finally buying a pack of cigarettes and a postcard to send Kat. The shopkeepers are two old women, grey and creased, one slightly more stooped than the other.
Rebecca counts out unfamiliar Euros and drops them into the old woman’s wizened hand. “I used to know someone named Dowan,” she says, too casual. For once she’s glad her accent’s gone flat as a Yank’s. The woman blanches, and Rebecca pretends not to notice. “She said her family came from around here. Do you know the name?”
The older woman mutters under her breath.
“What was that?”
“There was a family by that name ’round here once,” the old woman finally admits, lips pursing. She slides the change across the counter. “Your friend is better off far away from them. They weren’t good folk. Anyway, they left Connemara, years ago. We’ve not seen sign of them since, and good riddance.”
The older woman mutters something else, and Rebecca lets it go, smiles and says good day and leaves the shop.
But she’d heard. They went back to the sea, the crone said.
She doesn’t go back to the cottage right away. Instead she gathers her courage and keeps walking, down the curving road they followed last night. Too bright a day for fear, for twisting night-dread. Dog’s Bay glitters brilliant blue-green, stretching out beneath the vault of sky to meet the deeper wilder Atlantic. Gulls’ cries echo down the shore, cormorant grunts and the kittiwake’s shrill kittee-waa-aake. She can pretend it’s just a walk in the sun, until she reaches the abandoned house.
More than abandoned, she can see now—roof fallen in, and the walls cracked and gutted by fire. Grass grows tall inside the skeleton, vines digging into chinks between the stones.
All gone. Aoife and her family. Her hulking brothers and taciturn croaking father. The Fomorians finally driven back to the sea. What happened to her mother, with her nervous eyes and fluttering hands—did she go into the water too, or did something else befall her? Maybe she fled the ocean, the way Rebecca’s father did. Maybe she had better luck in that.
Rebecca pulls out the necklace, lets it dangle from her fingers, scattering light against the stones. The little bronze frog sways back and forth amid the shining green. Aoife always loved frogs. She caught them in the bog, stroking their slimy backs and playing with their toes. She kissed them before she set them free—even convinced Rebecca to kiss one once. They never found a prince, or a princess.
They had each other, and didn’t mind.
No reason to think Aoife would have waited for her.
She hangs the necklace from a broken stone, where it gleams like absinthe tears. “I did come back,” she whispers to the grass and shadows.
She dreams that night, dreams of her last show. The gallery all light and noise, voices like bird-chatter as the guests drift about in their sleek black, from sculpture to sculpture, painting to painting. Kat moves among them, beaming, chatting up a critic from some magazine or another.
Almost a pleasant memory, but her mother stands next to her, watching Rebecca with pearl-clouded eyes. Dead eyes.
“You always were a morbid child,” she says, staring at a sculpture. One of the Sea-change series, a sea horse curled inside the shell-white curve of a plaster pelvis. “Did I ever tell you about your father?”
But then she’s gone, and Rebecca knows as much about her father as she’s ever going to. She turns away, looking for Kat, when a rank brine-stench fills her nose.
Aoife stands in the corner. Aoife and her family.
Scaled things, spined, wide mouths filled with rows and rows of teeth. Aoife’s father stands behind her, and his hands on her shoulders are webbed and clawed.
“It’s time to come home,” Aoife says. Her voice is a frog’s croak, the roar of the tide.
And Rebecca wakes in shadows and moonlight, sick sweat sticking the sheets to her flesh. She stumbles to the bathroom just in time to retch.
Dying or not, she still has things to do, things to think about besides memories and dreams, and she spends the morning with Siobhan, going over the girl’s work. She hasn’t played teacher very often, but it’s oddly enjoyable.
She studies the canvas from across the room, drags on a Silk Cut and exhales toward the open window. A winterscape, cool and grey in the slanting summer light, the dark line of a tree and a girl’s red hat stark against shades of pale. Footprints dot the wide white space in the foreground, not quite where the girl’s should be, and there’s something eerie and haunting in that disconnect.
Siobhan watches her silently, her perfect stillness a fidget all its own. White paint smudges her nose, and Rebecca swallows the urge to wipe it away. She can imagine the feel of the girl’s freckled cheek against her palm.
Just the whiskey talking, she tells herself, the shots she spiked her coffee with to take the edge off the pain, to dull the razor wire wrapped around her hipbones. That might make a nice piece, if she can remember it.
“The lines of the tree could be smoother,” she finally says, letting out another jet of smoke. “It’s pulling the eye the wrong direction.”
Siobhan studies the painting, frowns and nods. “Yeah.”
“Other than that, it’s damn good.”
Rebecca snorts. “I’ll never coddle you, sweetie. You’ve got a great eye, and you’re young enough yet to not sweat the technique. Give me a set like this and I’ll give you a show.”
Siobhan’s grin shines brighter than all her chrome-silver glitter.
They stay up late talking and drinking, Siobhan recounting school exploits and Rebecca making her travels sound more interesting than they really were, till finally Siobhan starts to wilt and staggers off to bed. Rebecca’s glad she’s not as drunk as she could be; the invitation in the girl’s eyes is clear as brushstrokes.
When she’s safely alone again she uncaps the bottle and pours a healthy shot. Just enough to kill the pain, to kill the dreams.
As she raises the glass she hears the song.
So faint at first she thinks it’s just the wind or the waves, an ocean susurrus. It spools over the casement, creeps beneath the door, a haunting siren’s aria. Only a moment and it’s gone, but too late for Rebecca to pretend she never heard, to pretend she imagined it. A shipwreck song.
She sets the glass down and goes to dash herself against the rocks.
Across the sloping lawn, grass slippery beneath her bare feet, and down the rocky bank to the beach, to the ribbon of shell-sand shining white under the moon. On the distant curve of the bay she sees a paler glimmer.
She wants to run, but fears to break the spell, to scare away the waiting shape. One step after another, on and on, till she knows it’s not an illusion, till her eyes tell her what her heart knows.
She’s changed. Rebecca knew she would be, spent years wondering and dreading and marveling what might be. How many paintings has she done, how many sculptures, imaging all the ways Aoife might have changed?
The reality is less, and more.
Red hair and white skin, like a fae thing. Like the girl Rebecca remembers.
Her hair is a coppery tangle, streaked with verdigris, snarled with sea wrack. Skin like moonlight, like nacre, luminous, iridescent. But as she moves closer, Rebecca can see the shimmer of scales, the mud and blood and mildew streaking the white dress. The smell of moss and brine fills her nose.
Aoife’s eyes are wider, pupils misshapen, but that summer-green fire is the same. The necklace gleams against her throat, mermaid’s treasure.
She holds out one long white hand and Rebecca takes it, barely a heartbeat’s hesitation at those curving claws. Their fingers can’t entwine, not with the veiny webbing between Aoife’s grown so thick, but they clasp, cold on warm, smooth on callused.
“You came back.” Rebecca brushes a cautious hand against Aoife’s cheek. Hair touches her fingers, too thick, clinging. She pulls back, fighting a shudder, before it can coil around her.
“I waited,” Aoife says, and Rebecca glimpses the needle teeth behind her wide mouth. Her voice is a whisper-hiss, like wind in leaves, like waves on sand.
The Dowan family. The Daoine Domhain. The people of the deep.
But still Rebecca’s oldest friend, her first love, her cousin, and she takes her in her arms, holds her close and breathes in the smell of the ocean.
“I knew you’d come back,” Aoife whispers. “You couldn’t stay away forever.”
Rebecca laughs, half a sob. “I’m dying, Aoife.” She guides the webbed hand down to her belly. “Cancer.”
Fingers splay, claws a warning pressure through cloth. Breath hisses between sharp teeth. “It’s eating you alive.”
“It’s in the bones now. Soon it will spread to my spine. There’s nothing anyone can do anymore.”
“Come with me.” Aoife’s hand slides lower and Rebecca shivers. “The sea can cure you. Nothing is hungrier than she is.”
“Cure me.” She swallows, throat gone dry. “You mean change me. I’d be like you.”
“You’d be with me. Forever.” She cups Rebecca’s face in her hands. “I’ll never be sick. I’ll never die. But it’s lonely, sometimes. I still remember a woman’s heart.”
Rebecca’s heart cracks like glass. “I said no, Aoife. I walked away, remember. What makes you think the sea would take me after all this time?”
“I can intercede. I’ll go to the deep places and beg for you. Mother Hydra will listen.”
Cold fingers brush her lips, silencing her doubts. “You had your life on land. There’s no need for you to die a mammal’s death.”
Her mouth closes on Rebecca’s, cold probing tongue and razor teeth and her kiss tastes of blood and salt, tastes like a shipwreck. Wide webbed hands slide under Rebecca’s shirt, leaving trails of damp. Twenty years, but her body still remembers Aoife’s touch, no matter how she’s changed. Her hands clutch damp fabric, searching for buttons on the white dress.
Aoife’s hair clings to Rebecca’s face and shoulders, anemone tendrils trapping her as they sink to the sandy, salt-slick grass, washing up against the beach like so much flotsam.
The moon has set when Rebecca stumbles back to the cottage, the stars blinded by a swath of clouds and no one to watch as she staggers tingling and half-numb across the beach. Her heart won’t slow its mad rhythm; every throb of her pulse burns in the bloody scratches Aoife left on her back and thighs.
Her whiskey still sits on the table, gleaming in the warm pool of kitchen light. She drains it, and then another, but as she falls into bed her mouth still tastes of the sea.
She dreams of Aoife, night after night, follows her down through blood-thick brine, where the water turns from clear to blue to black, where light and color are only memories. Where the only illumination is the phosphorescent glow of Aoife’s skin, a lure to draw the unwary.
Down and down and down, into the cathedral of the abyss, to an altar-throne where things older than gods hold court. Rebecca wants to look away as Aoife prostrates herself before the blood-scarlet gaze of those things, as she gives herself to the writhing teeth-and-tentacle embrace of the Hydra.
But she cannot blink, cannot turn aside.
Even waking can’t banish those images, and she doesn’t dare profane them with paint and canvas.
Then the dreams stop, and she knows Aoife’s paid whatever price they asked of her.
For the rest of the week she can’t work, can’t concentrate. She’s short with Siobhan, or doesn’t speak at all; she has no answer for the hurt in the girl’s eyes.
Live in pain perhaps another three months, or live forever. It doesn’t seem much of a choice.
She could have made the choice twenty years ago, when Aoife first started to hear the call of the waves. Rebecca heard it too, but feared the change, feared the other. So she fled Ireland, fled Aoife, and channeled all that siren-song into her art. She’s never regretted her life, for all the dark hours of the night when she’s wondered what if.
But now . . .
Rebecca stands on the beach, toes in the sand, watching the moon hang pale and swollen over the water, its light painting a silver road along the waves. The tide swells in response; she can feel it in her blood, calling her out, calling her down.
She thought Aoife would be here, but the bay is empty. This road she’ll have to start alone.
She doesn’t realize she’s moving until the sand changes under her feet, from dry and soft to damp and clinging. She strips off her shirt and underwear, leaves them like driftwood on the shore.
Water swirls around her legs, sliding between her thighs. Sand slips under her feet, sucked away with every lapping wave. Deeper and deeper, and the sea swallows her hips, her waist, reaching higher. The silver road stretches before her.
She can keep walking forever, into the endless blue wine.
Rebecca opens her mouth, tongue heavy with salt. Maybe she means to call Aoife’s name, or just take a last breath, but a shout echoes behind her and she turns, clumsy, waves tugging at her legs. She slips and goes under, rocks and sand scraping her knees as water closes over her head. It burns her nostrils, chokes her—
Hands close on her arms and pull her up. Siobhan’s wiry arm around her, dragging her onto the beach.
“Don’t you bloody leave me,” the girl mutters. “Not like this.” They collapse on damp sand and Rebecca coughs and sputters as Siobhan slaps her back.
“I wasn’t—” But she can’t explain that she wasn’t trying to die, that wasn’t the point at all, and then Siobhan is kissing her, stealing her words away.
Nothing like cold mermaid kisses—Siobhan is warm and sweet, honeysuckle and oranges, muscles strong and lithe under smooth skin. Light spills from the hall, limns the planes and curves of her body, gleams yellow on metal.
Rebecca lays her palm over the girl’s belly, feeling the rhythm of blood and breath, studying the line and contrast. Siobhan takes her hand, twining their fingers together.
“Don’t leave me,” she whispers, “not tonight.”
“Not tonight.” And Rebecca lowers her head to Siobhan’s breast, tugs the silver ring with her teeth until she moans; they don’t speak again.
But morning comes, and the conversation they can’t avoid. Rebecca explains the cancer, the diagnosis—four months, if she’s lucky.
“Oh.” Siobhan’s blue-grey eyes widen. “Oh, god. I thought. . . ”
“You thought I was just a drunk?” She chuckles wryly as the girl blushes.
“I’m sorry about last night. I didn’t know you were in so much pain. It wasn’t my place to interfere.”
“No, don’t be sorry.” She lights a cigarette, looking anywhere but those stricken eyes. “I never should have thought of leaving you with no explanation—it was a shitty thing to try.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
She thinks of all the paintings back in the loft, all the pieces she’s started and abandoned in the last six months. Not much of a swan song. The cigarette burns in her hand, orange ember consuming paper and tobacco. Can webbed hands hold a brush?
“I don’t know.”
Another day with Siobhan, talking about paintings. Rebecca could give her a show—easy to imagine those haunting pictures hanging in her gallery. Easy to imagine the girl sprawled on the wide bed in her loft, purple-tipped hair rasping against the pillows. Kat would like her.
They don’t talk about choices, about the future. That night Siobhan makes love like she’s already lost, like Rebecca is a ghost in her arms. A tear splashes Rebecca’s lips, a tiny ocean against her tongue.
Eventually Siobhan’s breathing slows, deepens, and her arm around Rebecca relaxes. She doesn’t stir when a pillow replaces her lover.
The tide is pulling out, leaving dark swathes of seaweed limp on the sand. This time Aoife waits on the beach, waves breaking around her ankles. She’s shed the white dress, along with any pretense of humanity. A creature of salt and bone, of razor spines and scales and writhing anemone hair. Rebecca meets her glowing eyes and it’s all she can do not to fall to her knees on the sand.
Siren, sea goddess—Aoife could take her, drown her and eat her and give her bones to the hungry sea, and Rebecca would never regret it.
But Aoife doesn’t. Instead she steps forward, hand outstretched, and Rebecca sees the familiar in the other again. The necklace sparkles on her cousin’s white breast.
“Please—” Her voice is fainter. Gill-slits flutter around her collarbones, below her ribs.
Live three months in pain, or live forever with the woman she loves. How can such a choice be so hard to make?
“Even the sea won’t wait forever,” Aoife says. “Come with me.”
Before Rebecca can answer, those luminescent green eyes flicker over her shoulder, toward the cottage. She glances back, sees a slender shape silhouetted in the open doorway. Then the door closes.
Rebecca moves forward, takes Aoife’s hand, kisses her cold salty lips. “I’m sorry.” She steps back, toward dry ground.
“But you’ll die! Pain and death and rot—what kind of end is that?”
“I’ve never been as brave as you.”
“Don’t leave me again.” The tide draws back, and Aoife slides with it.
Third chance. Last chance. Rebecca bites her lip until copper washes over her tongue.
“I’m sorry. I love you. I always will.”
And she turns away from Aoife, away from the hungry sea, and walks up the hill to the cottage. The wind dries her tears.
Siobhan sits at the kitchen table, pouring the last of the whiskey with a trembling hand. She startles as Rebecca walks in, and drops of amber liquid spill. The empty bottle clacks against wood.
Rebecca wipes salt off her cheeks and tries to smile. “Have you ever been to New York?”